The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, May 11, 2002  

Tales of Destruction Exaggerated

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity endured the 39-day siege by Israeli forces disordered but not desecrated, belying the stories of theft, wanton destruction, and reckless vandalism circulated by the Israelis in recent weeks. Another myth was put to rest when the clerics in the church denied having been held hostage.

"The only visible damage was to the Franciscan priory next to the church, which had been scorched by one of three fires reported during the occupation till all that remained was blackened floors and ceilings," according to an article by Alan Cowell and Joel Greenberg in today's New York Times.

Cowell and Greenberg's account makes clear that the church was a mess, with refuse strewn about, evidence of fire damage, the stench of human waste, and so forth, but we read nothing in the article (or in the pieces on the same subject in the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer) that would not be expected given that more than two hundred people were holed up inside the church (without toilets and subject to sniper fire in the church compound) for nearly six weeks.

"A baptism font, festooned with bottles of Ajax bleach, appeared to have been used to wash dishes. An altar had served as a table. Cooking pots and gas stoves shared floor space with abandoned camouflage fatigues. Black garbage bags choked dark recesses. As in other parts of Bethlehem, the air was heavy with the tang of burned refuse," write Cowell and Greenberg.

Those who endured the siege inside the church said the scene was dominated by armed Palestinians who "set up committees for food and decision-making on issues like whether people should leave the church, as scores did during its occupation." But those who remained inside denied they were held hostage. "A Franciscan priest who spent the entire 39 days in the church, and declined to be identified by name, said: 'We were hostages only of peace. We could have left but chose to remain.'"

The stories of theft and vandalism circulating in recent weeks may also have been entirely untrue. "A Mexican priest trapped in the church, the Rev. Nicolás Márquez, said that in the early days some gunmen stole articles from the Armenian section of the church -- a bishop's gold chain and pectoral cross, a candelabra, an icon," the reporters write. "But they put them back later."

And it appears that the Palestinians who entered the church were cooperative with the resident clerics. The Palestinians who initially slept in the grotto that is venerated as the site of Jesus' birth were persuaded by the priests to sleep elsewhere.

"Among the various groups there, 10 pro-Palestinian foreign activists had shown disrespect for the church, smoking and drinking, Orthodox priests complained to reporters," indicating the worst behavior wasn't on the part of the Palestinians.

According to Sala Ajarmi, a Palestinian civilian in the church, the Israelis killed eight people and wounded 27 others. "Israeli officials said their snipers opened fire only on armed men. But Mr. Ajarmi disputed this. 'One of the dead was the bell-ringer,' he said."

The Israelis claim 40 "explosive devices," including booby traps, were found in the church. "But that claim conflicted with subsequent events," according to the Times. "Even though the Israeli military said the church might be booby-trapped, monks and friars crammed through the door just after 5 p.m. to chant and pray in relief as the church's bells pealed for the first time in over five weeks. Then the Israeli troops withdrew, and people flooded into the church and saw no trace of bombs or explosives."

Soon after the church reopened, Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's representative to Jerusalem "surveyed the evidence of recent occupation — abandoned soup bowls and cooking gas cylinders — and pronounced that this did not amount to formal desecration."

We wonder what was accomplished during this 39-day siege. The 13 Palestinians most wanted were exiled, not handed over as Israel had been demanding, the Israelis emerged looking in the eyes of the world as the aggressor in the stand-off, and the resolution of the siege gave a larger role to the Europeans, a goal long sought after by the Palestinians and one that, in the end, will not serve Israel well.

What a waste.

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